The Bible (from biblos, Greek for ‘book’) is the basis of two great religions, Judaism in the Old Testament and Christianity in the New Testament. In each case it brings together a group of documents to tell the story of the founders and early followers of the religion. In doing so it also explains their beliefs.
The conventional sources of historical evidence (archaeological remains, written documents) provide few traces of the Old Testament story and none at all of the events described in the New Testament. Yet in the Bible the early Jews and Christians provide an account of themselves which is unparalleled, among religious groups of those times, in its wealth of detail.
Epistles and Acts: AD 50-90
The holy book used by the early Christians is the Jewish Bible, known to Christians now as the Old Testament (‘testament’ meaning in this context a covenant between God and man). But from the middle of the 1st century AD texts begin to be written which will later be gathered into a New Testament, representing the updated covenant revealed by Christ.
The earliest such texts are the letters (or Epistles) written between about 50 and 62 AD by St Paul to various early Christian communities.
Next in chronological sequence comes the Acts of the Apostles, a description of the missionary efforts of Peter and others in Jerusalemand of Paul on his journeys.
This account is believed to be the work of Luke, who probably writes it between about AD 75 and 90. He has accompanied Paul on some of his travels, including his last journey to Rome. Much of Acts, therefore, is first-hand contemporary evidence of the events described.
The Gospels in written form are slightly later than the Epistles and Acts, but they contain oral texts from earlier times.
The first Christians, gathering for worship, repeat together their beliefs about the life, death and promises of Jesus Christ. These truths are what they have been told and taught; they are what they teach to new converts and to their own children. They are the joyful tidings of a better world which only Christians share. ‘Good news’ is what the word gospel means.
As the years pass, it makes sense to write down the sayings of Jesus and the stories about him which many Christians (but not all) know so well by heart. This is done in several places and in differing versions.
The earliest version to survive in the Bible is Mark’s Gospel. It was probably written between AD 75 and 85, and it was used – together with other sources – as the basis for the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, each written a few years later. The Gospel of John is later again (perhaps around AD 100) and differs from the other three in concentrating on spiritual issues more than biography. It is not until well into the 2nd century that the four Gospels are given their names (see Naming the Gospels).
Establishing the canon: 2nd – 4th century AD
By the middle of the 2nd century it becomes evident that a great many different and often contradictory passages of holy scripture are circulating among the various Christian churches, each claiming to offer the truth. (There is even a Gospel according to Judas Iscariot.) Which of these shall be accepted as the official canon? This becomes a subject of urgent debate among church leaders.
By the end of the century it is widely agreed that four Gospels, the Epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles are authentic. But it is not until 367 that a list is circulated by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, which finally establishes the content of the New Testament.
Meanwhile the texts are being ceaselessly copied and recopied on papyrus and later on parchment. A few fragments survive from the 2nd century, but the earliest complete New Testament (the Codex Sinaiticus, in Greek, written probably in Egypt, now in the British Library) dates from the late 4th century.
By this time Jerome is working in Bethlehem on his Latin version of the Bible. The story of the New Testament evolves into the story of its translations.